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Under the San Luis Bridge

by Gary Clifton

Part 1 appears in this issue.


I tossed the Hill Smith cassette on the seat of my GMC. A Dodge with overhead emergency lights slid to a halt beside me. A tan uniformed, grossly overweight cop who probably outweighed Louisiana, squeezed out. He pointed a Glock pistol at my chest. The half-water air and his bulbous, sweat-soaked carcass made him look like he’d just walked through a car wash.

“Hold it right there, buster,” he grunted in his fat man’s wheeze. “You wanna die, jes’ reach for that pistol beneath your shirt.” His red face resembled a half-cooked lobster. His hand trembled so violently that the immediate danger was accidental discharge.

“Police.” I impersonated a real cop for the second time in ten minutes. “Chief Torsola just cleared the scene here to assist the county in a ten-fifty major.” I gambled this mope knew the usual radio code for a vehicle accident. “She gets wind you pointed that hog-leg at me, it’s gonna be your ass.”

He lowered the pistol. “Guy inside the Hill Smith here says you pointed a gun at him.”

“I threatened to kick his ass for withholding information on the disappearance of the two campers down by the bridge last night. If I’d pulled a pistol, you’d have a fatal shooting call.” Loafer’s call I’d noticed as I walked in, must have been to this clown.

He continued, holding the Glock at his side. “That’s bad info, dude. That whore and her pimp are laid up in a motel up or down the beach someplace. They’ll show up.”

“I’m Dave Kratzert, outta Houston... and you’d be Officer...?”

“Uh, Willy Helms, Pointe View P.D.” He didn’t extend a hand and I returned the favor.

“You get a lot of calls to this joint, officer?”

“Ain’t been in there in a week.”

He leaned back into his Dodge and spoke into a radio microphone, apparently asking Chief Torsola to verify my story. Whatever she said, worked, and he brushed by me into the Hill Smith bar. I drove the GMC the short hop to Cracker John’s a hundred feet away.

* * *

Inside the dingy premises, two female customers were hunched together over beers -- lovers, I doubted, but hookers I concluded. They both gave me the “let’s party” look, which I ignored. What was missing was the smell of any food cooking; bad news for a restaurant at lunchtime.

The bartender was sleazy, wore a full beard and shoulder-length, graying hair, with penetrating yellow eyes capable of radiating Lon Chaney right off the Wolfman set. His expression said Loafer had called and warned him I was on the way.

“Help you?”

“We’re askin’ about two campers disappeared last night.” I gestured toward the bridge, then tossed the Emily Sue and Crowder photos on the bar.

“Not familiar with either,” he said too quickly.

“Girl’s a hooker. Works outta joints along here. And you’d be...?”

“None o’ yer bidness.”

I stepped around the bar and looked at the liquor license. “Partner, if you’re not Clovis Ray Mackey, this place is hereby closed.” I swallowed the urge to slap him on his ass.

Both female customers beat it out the front door. Wolfman placed a soft hand on my forearm — a futile hint of macho bouncer mode.

“Don’t make a mistake, jerkoff.” I shrugged him off.

He produced a Louisiana driver’s license with his photo and the same name. “I still ain’t knowin’ them people.” He pointed to the photos on the bar. “And I ain’t givin’ a crap how damned big and tough you are.” Brave talk for the Wolfman.

I jotted down the date of birth from the driver’s license and walked out to my GMC. Fat cop Willy Helms was standing on the Hill Smith parking lot watching me, a cigarette dangling from his lips. I reached Maria by cellular with the info on the creepy Cracker John’s bartender. In ten minutes, she called back.

“Dave, this Mackey has misdemeanor arrests for child molestation and animal cruelty, plus felony bust in Shreveport for suspicion of rape. Guy’s a sexual sadist. However, no convictions. A loser, but not enough to deny him a Texas liquor license. I’ll be clear here in a couple hours. Be straight back down there.”

I spent that couple of hours working bars and low-rent motels for any info available. Years of digging in rot, plus the rising class of clientele as I got closer to Galveston, convinced me I’d started excavating in the right area on my first try. I drove back toward the San Luis Pass, skipping Cracker John’s and the half-assed sex offender.

* * *

When I pulled into the rear Hill Smith parking lot, an angel of good luck appeared. A middle-aged woman was digging a mop and other cleaning supplies from an old Nissan hatchback. I swung the GMC beside her.

This time, I flashed PI credentials, but fudged anyway. “Dave Kratzert, ma’am, Texas Board of Health. How many rooms need cleaning today? Just a routine sanitary inspection.”

Already bathed in sweat from the humid heat, she slumped onto the rear bumper of the Nissan, appearing faint. “Jes’ two, mister. Mr. Loafer says another room needs cleaning, but he’s gonna take care of it hisself. I ain’t been in it, but it stinks somethin’ awful through the door. Ain’t been in there.”

“You have a passkey?”

She handed me a ring of keys. “Number three, mister,” she sighed.

The side door that Loafer had mentioned earlier was indeed an avenue inside the motel section largely out of view of the bar. I only had to open number three halfway to see the end of Calvin Simpson’s nightmare.

B.J. Crowder’s pimping career had ended, twisted in a bloody mass in a corner of a low-rent motel, his head an indistinct, bloody smear. Emily Sue had left this world bound and mutilated in a sea of blood on a worn bed. Somehow, a routine prostitution transaction had yielded to a sex/torture ordeal. Another case of dope, booze and lust gone bad.

As I eased the door shut. The smell followed me. I ducked slightly to turn the key. The move caused Loafer’s baseball bat to bounce off my shoulder. I got him face center with an overhand right. He went down in the hallway, spitting blood and teeth. I cautioned, “Not too late to stay down, dude.” He did.

Maria answered on one ring. She was only a block away. She called the cavalry in from Galveston County. Soon the hallway was glutted with cops, including Patrolman Dumbass Willy Helms. Loafer, wailing his innocence, sat handcuffed against the hall baseboard while medics tended his damaged face.

Helms, useless at a crime scene and apparently a chain smoker, waddled back outside several times to smoke a cigarette. I wondered if lung cancer might cancel his ticket before coronary failure.

“Kratzert, did you touch anything inside the room?” asked a paunchy detective I’d heard Maria call “Looper.”

“Nope, never entered.” I was having trouble believing a mope like Loafer could have acted alone. Then I saw the CSI dig a revolver from Crowder’s rear waist. There had to be two perps.

* * *

As evening approached, they hauled Loafer away, still wailing. I followed Maria back to the police station. We both had reports to write. While I was sitting at a small desk, I realized I still had the cassette from the Hill Smith. I retrieved it from my pickup seat and played it on Maria’s machine.

The tape was poor quality. Fifteen minutes of tinkering and a fuzzy, but beautifully vivid scene appeared which would change hell out of the investigation.

“Maria, that Galveston County detective... uh, Looper? He still close by? I have some news.”

She dialed her cellular, spoke briefly and cut the connection. “He’s still over at the Hill Smith. Be here in five minutes.”

Detective Looper, preceded by his ample belly, walked in. Out of breath from the exertion, he asked, “What’s up, guys?”

Patrolman Willy Helms stepped in behind him.

“It’s cigarette show and tell time, Looper.” I said.

Perplexed, Looper waited.

I had the stage. “The dumped cigarettes and crumpled package I gave you from the tent. The box was from Marlboro Black Label smokes. Back at the Hill Smith, when Willy here stepped outside often to smoke, I saw he smoked the same brand.”

Willy grunted, “Hell, Kratzert, that ain’t nothin’!”

“Looper, I suggest that the DNA from a cigarette butt I saw one of your CSI’s retrieve at the Hill Smith murder scene will match DNA found on those butts from the tent, both of which will match Patrolman Helms here. Good chance his prints are on that cigarette box.”

Helms stiffened and looked furtively at the door. “Fingerprints ain’t no murder case.” Maria stepped behind him and slid his Glock from its holster.

“Go ahead and run, Willy,” I said. “I’d love to chase you across that parking lot and kick your fat ass. I’ll give twenty yards head start.” That would have involved my bad leg cooperating.

Willy slumped into a plastic chair. I continued. “Maria, I wager Willy’s private vehicle is a dark-colored van with one white rear door.”

She nodded. “Yeah... dark green Ford.”

I pulled out my cellular to share some pictures. “Mismatched tire prints I found next to the tent. Betcha they match Willy’s van. And speaking of vehicles, I’d guess an all-hands police search will turn up B.J. Crowder’s pickup abandoned in a parking lot somewhere close... with more DNA of whoever drove it there.”

Looper said, “I’ll send lab techs to preserve hard impressions of those tire tracks.”

I stared Willy down. “Looper, I’d also bet inside Willy’s van, you’ll find DNA matching Wolfman Clovis Ray Mackey, proprietor of Cracker John’s outhouse next door. And I’d suggest that when the lab extracts DNA from beneath Emily Sue’s fingernails, it matches either ol’ Willy here or the Mackey guy next door or both. Note the scratch on Big Willy’s neck. He’s tried to cover it with makeup but the heat and sweat melts it off. I saw it when he pointed a pistol at me this afternoon. I’d also bet room three at the Hill Smith will give up the DNA of one or both of Willy here or Wolfman Macky.”

“Crap!” Willy spat. “Aint’ been in the Hill Smith...”

I flipped on the video player and spun the tape to the sweet spot. Two patrons exited, then the huge form of Willy Helms in walking shorts entered behind them. He walked out of the frame toward the bar.

“Willy, last night just past midnight, you walked toward the bar, which is also toward the side door. The Hill Smith has so little business you chanced finding an unlocked motel room door... number three as it was. Loafer wouldn’t give a damn, had he seen you. Your buddy, Wolfman, enticed Emily Sue and her pimp Crowder in through the side door on the promise of something special, maybe some extra yummy dope, or an extra hundred bucks. Wolfman has a history of weird, sadistic behavior. Y’all had a little ‘carve up the hooker’ party.”

Big Willy’s drooping face appeared likely to melt off onto his belly. “I ain’t did—”

“Emily Sue and Crowder sold weird stuff like kinky sex on the hoof. They’d used the Hill Smith to do business before and were familiar with the place. But nobody showed them the menu for Act finale. You were on the money, dude, when you said they were laid up in some hotel up or down the beach someplace.”

Willy, big as the side of a house, began to sob like I’d said he had to take a bath. Somehow the spectacle reminded me of putting a dress on a dog.

“That goofy sucker never told me about no damned killin’. We’d done it before. Tie her ass up and play nasty. We spotted them under the bridge while we was smokin’ dope. Mackey promised a real party. He beat B.J. to death with a jack handle before I could get his ass stopped. Then he tol’ me I’d get the needle if I didn’t keep quiet. I hadda hang around and help him with the girl. That’s how she scratched me.”

I helped Maria get handcuffs on the blubbering wreck. “Willy, I’m sure detective Looper here can give you a little help in avoiding the three-needle cocktail. It’s called testifying against your partner... state’s evidence.”

I looked at Looper. “Loafer is guilty of obstruction and misprision of a felony by trying to cover up the murder scene, but not murder.” I could include trying to brain me with a baseball bat later.

Looper nodded and made a call for help on his cellular. Maria followed me onto the parking lot and rewarded my ham-handed act with a wet kiss in the gathering darkness. “Plenty more where that came from, cowboy,” she whispered huskily. “You know the address.”

“I’ll call you tomorrow, kiddo. And you’re gonna need a new Patrolman Dumbass.”

“Lookin’ for a job? That gray in your hair won’t impede your Pointe View police career.”


* * *

I had just made the Houston city limits when my cellular buzzed. It dawned on me I should have called Calvin with the good news.


“Rose, here, Dave. I have time if you can make it.”

Low-rent etiquette dictates that losers don’t dare turn down back-to-back opportunities. I picked up a six-pack and drove out to her place. I finally fell asleep on her sofa, too wiped to open a beer. I opened one eye and thought, Oh hell, Calvin Simpson! Never mind, I could call him later.

Copyright © 2020 by Gary Clifton

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